Saturday, 29 August 2009

Kiss and Tell or Not Even a Kiss, Sharon Olds and the Desperate Romantics

I had a committee meeting this past week to try and start to firm up readers for the Poetry Events that CB1 Poetry run in Cambridge. Launch event on the second Tuesday in October looks a cracker Matthew Hollis, the Poetry Editor at Faber introducing four of his newly minted Faber poets; young, talented, innovative. Surely these poets could make the Desperate Romantics look like a boring middle-aged cast from ‘Carry on Up the Easel’?

I have been following this series on BBCTV and am aware that this is a total parody of the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites but quite enjoyed it by taking it at face( or should it be cartoon)value, its knowing style, looks to camera and the ‘nudge, wink, say no more’ jokes. It was no more a serious study of these Pre-Raphaelite artist and writers as The Poseidon Adventure was an insight into the survival and rescue techniques necessary for serious collisions at sea (although I suppose I will head for the propeller shaft should I ever be in an upturned cruise ship ). Rossetti, actually waited a few years before deciding he needed his poems back from his wife's grave and got a legal exhumation order to dig up his wife’s coffin, prise off the lid and retrieve his work. Luckily a back-up disc suffices these days. Of course this still seems to put Mr Rossetti in a bad light, although raking over old bones of past loves and partners for sources of work still occurs today in literary circles but not in such a graphic way. Should you ever be related to a poet or any writer has always been one of those questions the review pages of the broadsheets tend to throw out especially when reviewing some personal memoir or series of ill disguised poems about an ex, a child or a parent. It has been ever thus and is not a new phenomena generated by kiss and tell journalism. I was always a little uneasy that perhaps some relationships are off limits, especially if the power rests solely with the writer. Is writing about someone, who has no right of reply, tantamount to a subtle form of literary bullying?

Sharon Old’s poems that engage with her childhood epitomised by the incident of her being tied to a chair by her parents as a child are a well known current example of writing from life experience ( I am not even going down the Julia Myerson route). Her father or mother if they had been gifted poets or writers might have responded in similar vein with their own ‘take’ on past events, but they weren’t and they didn’t. ‘It wasn’t like that’ is always part of the dialogue between human beings and their own shared histories. Fact and fiction in terms of the operation of memory and social dynamics is a blurred border.

The answer may be of course that the writer or poet is entitled to say ‘Well it felt like that to me and fact is only a small part of the story I want to tell’. Whether you were wearing a blue jumper or a green one when your parents tied you to a chair is irrelevant, even whether they actually did tie you to a chair is irrelevant, if you felt or believed they had tied you to a chair is probably more useful for any discussion of the poem and even if the incident is entirely fictitious, the poem has to stand and fall by its craft, use of language and it’s emotional truth.Poets and writer may have always indulged in some equivalent of False Memory Syndrome, driven by creative forces stronger than mere fact. When is a lie not a lie when it is a magnificent creative lie is perhaps a cynical way of looking at it. I seem to be talking alot about lies at the moment in my blogs perhaps there is something in the air, in politics in what we are all looking for at the moment that makes the telling of lies and what this means to us as individuals important. The whole release of the Libyian bomber is threaded through with the need to know the truth and who is telling lies. The death of Ted Kennedy makes me recall how a man was driven to lie about what happened one dark night and was in many ways absolved of that lie by his life post lie.

What is an emotional truth? I have no idea for you dear reader, because it essentially relies on each individual’s encounter with the poem and what speaks to them. You can critique a poem in many ways, technical use of rhythm, rhyme, form, use of language, simile, metaphor, imagery etc but when you say this poem makes me feel x, it is a difficult one to argue with. You could argue that the reader may not be clear about the poem and is therefore wrong in what they feel simply on the basis of them ‘misreading’ something although sometimes we misread for a purpose because it supports our own need to see something in a particular way. If someone for instance says this poem makes them feel claustrophobic and points to things within the poem that for him or her substantiate this claim then that is an emotional truth for them. The use of the word cupboard maybe, allied with a tight box like form such as a sonnet may trigger some emotional response for the reader…..maybe they have been trapped in a cupboard or a lift, maybe they fear being in a confined space. One person’s nightmare cupboard is another person’s cosy nook etc.

I like Sharon Old’s poetry, she has something interesting to say, she often says it very well in a way that engages me and what if she keeps writing about her childhood and events in it as some have accused her of; if the poems are good she is not a one trick pony but someone who can perform the highest art of advanced dressage with an amazing horse. Space Heater for instance just evokes a moment when you can feel the tension and the emotion within a room going back years. Here is a good article about Sharon Old's work if you have the time and energy.

It is now a bright and sunny bank Holiday week-end. I may join the throng to wander round the huge market that takes over my small fen town. I am now quite good at convincing myself that a bargain is only a bargain if you actually want and need the item. I can even ignore the hard boiled egg slicer that a man with the gift of the gab convinces you can also be used for cutting tomatoes, brushing the dog and bringing about world peace.

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